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September 3, 2009

What if Europeans hadn't 'discovered' Africa? (Part 3: Slavery cont'd)

Dr. Mohamed Elmasry

Dr. Mohamed ElmasryWhile the Portuguese were conquering Ceuta, Morocco, in 1412, they were impressed with many goods that came from Timbuktu, Mali, a prosper trading center in the African desert and an intellectual and spiritual capital with a flourishing Islamic university.

But the Portuguese thought it may be easier to conquer more African cities via the ocean rather than the desert.

So, in 1420, they set off along the coast of Morocco and took over an island, renaming it Porto Santo, and another island, Madeira. Portuguese settlers were left on each island.

By 1432, the Azores were “discovered.” Soon the coastal town of Cape Bojador (Western Sahara) fell. In 1441, the Portuguese captured African people from coastal towns and took them back home, thus starting the European slave trade.

The trips continued: taking slaves, and trading arms, ammunition and liquor for slaves, gold, dates, amber, musk, leather, wool, butter and cheese. The Portuguese got richer and the Africans got poorer. The Portuguese kings granted sea captains possessions of African islands and coastal towns.

The news of the sudden wealth of the Portuguese started to travel to other parts of Europe and the Germans and the Italians followed in 1456. An Italian sailor, after spending some time in Portugal settled in Madeira. His name was Christopher Columbus, the man who would bring genocide to the natives of the Americas.

The Portuguese reached the Congo River in 1483. In 1485 the Portuguese king happily reported to the Pope that the sea road to India would soon be open. In 1497 Vasco da Gama set out from Lisbon to “discover” the Cape of Good Hope and then followed the East African coast and crossed the Indian Ocean to India.

European apologists for the slave trade cite three main excuses:

(1) The slave trade had existed in Africa since prehistoric times (Donald L. Wiedner’s A History of Africa South of  The Sahara);

(2) The slave trade did not have adverse affect on the size of the population as a whole (J.D.Fage’s A history of Africa); and

(3) Africans needed no persuasion to enslave their fellows.

But the truth is somewhat more economic. “European investors plunged into cotton and sugar planting all over the New World. These plantations were unworkable without African slaves,” said Thomas Pakenham in his book The Scramble for Africa. “Down to the steamy ports of the Slave Coast west of the river Niger came the lines of shuffling slaves, to be unshackled and graded, marketed, reshackled, loaded and dispatched with minimum loss in transit – perhaps a third died – to the slave farms of Brazil, America and the West Indies. Ten million black Africans are reckoned to have been exported like cattle on the hoof, or crates of chickens, during the three centuries after the Portuguese discoveries.”

From his book Africa: A Biography of the Continent, John Reader gives us this assessment: “For Africans, enslavement was a threat that compounded the uncertainties of existences – a fear at the back of the mind, dulled by familiarity perhaps, an ache that induced a lingering fatalism in society as it passed from generation to generation.

“Kidnapping, capture, enslavement threatened villagers in various parts of West Africa for up to 400 years: 20 generations lost some kinsmen to the slavers, or saw their neighbors routed …The pre-existing political economies in which chiefs and elites commanded the respect and occasional material tribute of their subjects were transformed into systems controlled by warlords and powerful merchants who obliged indebted chiefs and elites to collect slaves as payment against forced loans.”

Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe talks about the destruction of his own Igbo culture by Christian missionaries: “How do you think we can fight when our brothers have turned against us? The white man is very clever. He came quietly with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. He has put a knife to the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.”

The threat of the slave trade on the human development of Africans was documented first hand in 1526 by Mvemba Nzunga, the king of the Kongo, to the King João III. In one of his letters Nzunga, baptized by the Portuguese as Affonso, wrote:

“Each day the traders are kidnapping our people—children of this country, sons of our nobles and vassals, even people of our own family… Corruption and depravity are so widespread that our land is entirely depopulated…We need in this kingdom only priests and schoolteachers, and no merchandise, unless it is wine and flour for Mass… It is our wish that this Kingdom not be a place for the trade or transport of slaves.

“Many of our subjects eagerly lust after Portuguese merchandise that your subjects have brought into our domains. To satisfy this inordinate appetite, they seize many of our black free subjects.... They sell them. After having taken these prisoners [to the coast] secretly or at night..... As soon as the captives are in the hands of white men they are branded with a red-hot iron.”

Later that year, Affonso wrote again appealing to the Portuguese King to stop selling European goods for human beings: “These goods exert such a great attraction over simple and ignorant people that they believe in them and forget their belief in God… My Lord, a monstrous greed pushes our subjects, even Christians, to seize members of their own families, and of ours, to do business by selling them as captives.”

“Kongo,” replied the Portuguese King João III, “had nothing else to sell.”

Dr. Mohamed Elmasry, an Egyptian-born African-Canadian, is Professor Emeritus of Computer Engineering, University of Waterloo. He can be reached at

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